POV: what constitutes environmental racism

June 13, 2022

In my own neighborhood I have seen environmentally racist strategies allow the slow execution of people of color. I have seen how undervaluing my community and the mistreatment of black and brown people is justified by the institutions responsible for decision making and resource distribution. I have seen how labeling people of color as careless and uninformed when it comes to environmental issues somehow equates to them as undeserving of access, opportunity, power, autonomy and happiness.

The status quo would have us believe that people of color do not value the environment or care about environmental issues, even though their communities are often the most impacted by them. Dr. Deborah Cohan at the University of South Carolina – Beaufort said, “The underlying message of environmentally racist tactics … is that certain neighborhoods and certain people matter less … and that geographical vulnerability is inevitable, when in fact it is socially constructed to be this way”.

But that is not all this story is about.

Growing up, seeing mental illness, poverty, inequitable health care, dilapidated infrastructure, scarcity of green space and healthy food options rampant in my neighborhood taught me a lot about my value as a black person in this country. The experience I am about to tell, taught me something different entirely. 

It wasn’t until a class discussion about a piece of literature that I felt what scholars and professionals are saying when they speak of environmental racism. In “The Big Conservation Lie”, Kenyan authors John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada talk about the abuse and injustice that comes from the conservation industry in Africa, and the negative impact of conservation on indigenous peoples and the environment. They talk about how the harmful effects come from indigenous peoples’ ecological knowledge being suppressed by the “cult of the white savior,” who is seen as the ultimate, trusted authority on conservation and the environment.

At some point a classmate raises their hand and declares that people, especially people from undeveloped nations should just be grateful and complain less. White scholars and researchers bring knowledge and wisdom that makes it possible for them – non white, non wealthy, underprivileged – to have access to “knowledge about the environment”.

This struck a nerve. Not because this was in any way a novel concept or uncommon belief, even among the most unsuspecting of people. Not because the notion that people of color not caring about environmental issues is a facet of environmental racism that makes things like redlining, food deserts, obesity, homelessness and public health crises to name a few, so widespread. No – even harder to swallow, is that for the very few of us black and indigenous students in graduate school working in environmental science fields, these kinds of beliefs have a way of devaluing us as students and making us question our place in this space. 

Erasure of cultures as being ones with connections to the environment, intentional displacement from ancestral lands, ignorance and damaging ways of thinking, are all environmental racism – it is time they be acknowledged as such.